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WATER-COLOUR 



BY 

NEVILLE LYTTON 



* 



LONDON 
DUCKWORTH COMPANY 

HENRIETTA STREET, COVENT GARDEN 

1911 



DEDICATED TO 
WILFRID SCAWEN BLUNT 



419985 



My best thanks are due to Mr. Ralph 
Brocklebank, Mr. G. Harry Wallis, F.S.A. 
(director of Nottingham Art Gallery), Mr. E. 
Marsh, Mr. Thomas Girtin, and Mr. James 
Orrock, R.I., for allowing me to reproduce 
Works of Art in their possession. 



LIST OF ILLUSTRATIONS 

To/ac* 
fate 

Cheyne Walk, Chelsea. Dated 1776. James Miller 10 

Strawberry Hill. Paul Sandby 10 
Cottages. Paul Sandby (By kind permission of the Director 

of the Nottingham Art Gallery) 10 

Lake Scene. John Cozens 10 

Durham Cathedral. W. Daniell, R.A. 12 
St. Mary's, Dover. J. M. W. Turner (In the possession of 

fames Orrock, Esq., R.I.) 14 
Somer Hill. J. M. W. Turner {In the possession of Ralph 

Brocklebank, Esq.) 14 

Lake of Brienz. J. M. W. Turner 18 
The Old Ouse Bridge, York {In the possession of Thomas 

Girtin, Esq.) 20 

Kirkstall Village, Yorkshire (In the possession of Thomas 

Girtin, Esq.) 20 

Carnarvon Castle (In the possession of Thomas Girtin, Esq.) 20 

Tower in Normandy (In the possession of E. Marsh, Esq.) 20 

Greta Bridge. John Sell Cotman 20 

Primroses and Birds' Nests. William Hunt 22 

The Challenge : a Storm on a Moor. David Cox 22 

Study of Trees. Claude 24 



B 



This brief treatise on water-colour was read as 
a paper to the members of the Art JVorkers 
Guild in igoy ; and though it has since been 
somewhat modified, it has retainea the form 
of a lecture, and I have reproduced the illus- 
trations which I then used as lantern slides. 



WATER-COLOUR 

BY the term water-colour, I mean landscape 
drawings done in wash. There are an im- 
mense number of works painted in water- 
colour which cannot be described as wash 
drawings. For instance, the Raphael cartoons in the 
Victoria and Albert Museum are water-colour. Burne- 
Jones painted a great number of pictures in water-colour, 
using the medium thick with heavy impasto. Rossetti 
did some beautiful subject pictures in water-colour. 
But this kind of water-colour is outside what I am 
dealing with, and should be described as tempera 
rather than water-colour. Landscape drawings done 
in wash are therefore my subject, and I will do my best 
to describe the special technique which they require. 

The technique of water-colour is comparable to the 
technique of two other forms of art, namely, that of 
fresco and decorative handwriting. It is like fresco 
because it has something of the same inevitableness. 
The colours should be laid on at once in their proper 
places, and then no more touched. If the washes are 
messed about there is a great loss of transparence and 
quality, just as in fresco, if the modelling is not finished 

7 



8 WATER-COLOUR 

by the time the lime sets any additional finishing in 
secco impairs the purity and durability of the colour. 

It is like decorative handwriting, because so much 
depends on the proper use of the proper tools. Pro- 
fessor Lethaby, in his preface to Mr. Johnston's book on 
handwriting and illuminating, says, " Of all the arts, 
writing shows most clearly the formative force of the 
instruments used. In the analysis which Mr. Johnston 
gives us in this volume, nearly all seems to be explained 
by the two factors, utility and the masterly use of tools. 
No one has ever invented a form of script, and herein 
lies the wonderful interest of the subject, the forms used 
have always formed themselves by a continuous process 
of development." Almost these exact words might be 
applied to water-colour painting. No one has ever 
really succeeded in water-colour with the wrong materials, 
and no one has ever misused his materials (not even 
Turner) without a very marked deterioration in style. 

I am going to show some reproductions of examples of 
the work of water-colourists of the past, to form a basis 
of argument and also to give an idea of the rise of 
English water-colour painting. 

There exists a book which treats very fully of this 
subject, namely, Roget's " History of the Old Water 
Colour Society." I mention it in case this admirable 
work may still be unknown to some students of water- 
colour. It contains very amusing anecdotes about the 
painters as well as a great deal of very solid and valu- 
able information about technique and colours. The 
following is a quotation from Roget about the technique 
of the earliest water-colourists : 

" Beginning with chiaroscuro drawing in grey or 



WATER-COLOUR 9 

brown, and using the pen as well as the brush, they 
proceeded to the suggestion of aerial perspective by the 
union of two simple colours, drawing near objects with 
the warmer, and reserving the cooler for distant parts 
of their view. Brown with grey, or either with blue, 
sufficed for that purpose. Then came the cautious 
addition of a few transparent tints washed over the grey 
or brown or bluish shaded drawings, to give some in- 
dication of varieties of local colour in objects. Trees 
were painted green, and the sky blue, and a distinction 
made between tiles and slate, brick houses and those 
built of stone. More colours were gradually introduced. 
But the process was still twofold. A shaded drawing 
was made in neutral tint with pen and brush, or brush 
alone ; and this drawing afterwards stained with various 
hues, as a child would colour a print. At length it was 
perceived that the broken colours resulting from the 
grey undercoat appearing through and modifying the 
brighter film above, might be got at in a more direct 
way. The same hues were obtainable by mixture." 

This system of blocking-out in light and shade as a 
beginning to a drawing has many great advantages, 
and is a method well worth employing nothwithstanding 
the many developments and retrogressions that have 
since been evolved. 

In the first place it induces the artist to separate 
construction and design from colour, and having paid 
due attention to the former, he can revel in colour 
without any risk of producing formlessness and lack of 
precision. Also in architectural subjects it gives a 
delicate transparency to the shadows, and is useful for 
producing effects of strong sunlight, as all the shadows 



io WATER-COLOUR 

can be put in at the same moment of sunlight. It is 
interesting to see that even in a chiaroscuro drawing a 
difference was made in the colouring of the different 
planes. A warm tone for the foreground and cooler 
tones for the distance. A correct interpretation of aerial 
perspective is the most important thing in landscape. 

This underpainting in neutral tints is akin to the 
dead-colouring employed by the Venetians and Reynolds 
in oil-colour. 

As an instance of drawings done in this way, I 
have reproduced two drawings. One of Cheyne Walk, 
Chelsea, by James Miller, 1778 (No. 1), and the other 
of Strawberry Hill, by Paul Sandby, not dated (No. 2). 
The chief merit of these drawings consists in the beau- 
tiful clear, firm, transparent shadows on the buildings. 
No one who has not tried this method of painting can 
realise how delicious is the effect of washing the local 
colours over the chiaroscuro drawing done with neutral 
tint. This overwash of colour takes much more effect 
on the light parts of the drawing than in the dark parts 
in shadow. Thus a drawing done in this way conforms 
to a law of colouring referred to by Reynolds. " Let 
your shadows be of one colour, glaze them till they are 
so." (Northcote's " Life of Reynolds.") 

How delightful is water-colour as a medium for 
topographical drawings, and how vastly superior to 
photographs are such works as these two, and yet at 
the present day there is no demand at all for such 
drawings, even though there are several artists quite 
capable of doing them. There must be hundreds of 
wealthy landlords all over England whose estates 
contain beautiful cottages which will probably be pulled 




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WATER-COLOUR n 

down in the course of the next fifty years, and what 
more appropriate way is there of patronising the art 
than by employing artists in such a manner. 

The next reproduction is also from a drawing by 
Paul Sandby in the Nottingham Museum (No. 3). 
The common modern accusation against a work of this 
kind is that it is dull. Of course in a way it is dull, 
and so are many excellent things. The subject is 
uneventful, and from the literary and dramatic point of 
view quite unimportant. The drawing simply serves 
as an illustration of how the rules of light and shade 
should be applied, and how the washes should lie on the 
paper. It is academic and unemotional, but as Vasari 
says, " It is exceedingly well done," and if such water- 
colours could be done by the quite young students at 
schools at the present day we should soon have an art 
capable of rendering the dramatic and emotional life of 
the period. 

No. 4 is by John Cozens. His art is very instructive 
as showing that the grandest effects can be obtained 
with a very restricted palette. In Roget there is a 
quotation from Redgrave to the effect that the colours 
which he used were Indian red, Indian yellow ochre, 
burnt sienna, and black. His drawings are described 
by Edwards as tinted chiaroscuro. Water-colour is 
above all things a chiaroscuro medium, and unless this 
is realised it is impossible to obtain the best effect from 
the medium. A drawing that has no brilliant colours 
may yet appear highly coloured by the skilful opposition 
of cold and warm colours, and nothing can be more 
inartistic than to seek to produce very intense colours 
in a medium so little suited for the purpose. How 



12 WATER-COLOUR 

often has the remark been heard, "I like bright colours ! 
I see bright colours." The answer to which is, "If you 
like bright colours paint in some powerful medium such 
as oil, tempera, or fresco." The attempts that are made 
in modern days to render the blue of the Mediterranean 
or purple heather effects in water-colour are enough to 
make Cozens turn in his grave. 

There is a certain thinness of edge and contour in 
Cozens' works which prevents them being of the very 
highest design, as may be seen in the line of the fore- 
ground in this drawing, beginning with the castle on 
the right and going right across the picture. The trees 
especially make a very dry silhouette. But the general 
effect is nearly always grand and broad. 

No. 5 is byW. Daniell, R.A. (1769-1837). It is a 
view of Durham, and though it is in a public museum 
(the Victoria and Albert) I think it is less well known 
than most of the other Durhams. It seems to be a 
law that every water-colourist who does the view of 
Durham Cathedral produces a masterpiece. This one 
is very formal in treatment (almost inspired from 
Canaletto), but very simple and strong in design. I 
would draw attention to the trees, which though very 
natural and graceful are yet very much " interpreted." 
This adoption of a canon of form is one of the most 
interesting points in the study of Art. 

Thus V interpretation ' may be taken to mean a 
convention of form applied to natural objects in order 
to render them appropriate to decorative uses. The 
Greeks, the Italians, the Flemish, Dutch, French, Early 
English, have all used such conventions. And yet why 
is it that this question is never dealt with in the 



WATER-COLOUR 13 

education of painters ? Students who go to art schools 
are generally made to do a considerable amount of 
drawing from plaster casts of ancient Greek sculpture, 
and then they are made to draw from the life without a 
word of advice as to the difference between the inter- 
preted and uninterpreted nude, and they naturally 
imagine that the difference between the Discobolus and 
an ordinary model is as the difference between a pair of 
boots and an umbrella, i.e., that they are two absolutely 
dissimilar objects. It is undoubtedly necessary both in 
landscape and figures to make a very special study of 
the canons of all periods and nations and thoroughly to 
grasp the need that has created these conventions. 
Painters should approach the problem of drawing or 
painting nature with their mind's eye well trained to 
the theory of canons, and their natural desire for natural 
realism combined with the bias of their own personality 
would produce those deviations from the canons of the 
past which are necessary to the vitality of the Art. (An 
interesting article on this subject appeared in the 
Burlington Magazine by Mr. Sturge Moore.) If 
painters, on the other hand, try to inspire themselves 
solely from nature without having studied the history 
of canon they are taking hold of the wrong end of the 
stick, and the result will be what we now see in modern 
picture galleries, namely, chaotic incompetence. Youth 
must of necessity be the age of convention in art. 
Emancipation from conventions and rules can only 
come after immersion in them. To arrive at natural 
realism combined with dignity of philosophic purpose 
and nobility of design means the possession of superb 
technique, which can only be acquired by a process of 

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i 4 WATER-COLOUR 

absorption, or else by being apprenticed to a great 
master. But alas ! the system of apprenticeship is no 
longer in use, and as a natural result there are no great 
masters. 

No. 6 is a drawing of St. Mary's, Dover. An early 
Turner of the most beautiful kind. It would, indeed, 
be difficult to find a fault in such a drawing. Every- 
thing in it is perfect : the carefully selected chiaroscuro 
the exquisitely graceful linear design the great 
breadth of the masses and the subtle handwriting 
quality of the accents and the avoidance of superfluous 
finish. 

No. 7. As an example of Turner's middle period I 
have chosen Somer Hill, which is not a water-colour at 
all but an oil-picture. It is not only one of the best 
works of Turner at his best period, it is also typical of 
what is best in the whole of English landscape art. It 
is intensely English in feeling and in atmosphere. It 
is very romantic, yet its romance is controlled and kept 
within bounds by a classical restraint. It will serve as 
an excellent illustration to what I am going to say about 
chiaroscuro. 

Chiaroscuro is a word which has almost entirely 
dropped out of modern studio jargon. " Values " is 
perhaps the nearest equivalent to chiaroscuro but 
when a modern artist says that the values are wrong in 
a drawing, he means that the particular depth of the 
tones in different planes is wrong from a realistic point 
of view, i.e., not according to what might be observed 
from nature. Chiaroscuro means something quite 
different from this. The following is a quotation from 
Reynolds : " When I was at Venice; the method I took 




No. 6 



ST. MARY'S, DOVER 

!. M. W. TlRNKR 

(In the possession of James Orrock, Esq., R.I ) 






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WATER-COLOUR 15 

to avail myself of their principles was this : When I 
observed an extraordinary effect of light and shade in 
any picture, I took a leaf of my pocket-book, and 
darkened every part of it in the same gradation of light 
and shade as the picture, leaving the white paper un- 
touched to represent light, and this without any atten- 
tion to the subject or the drawing of the figures. . . . 
After a few experiments I found the paper blotted 
nearly alike. Their general practice appeared to be to 
allow not above a quarter of the picture for the light, 
including in this portion both the principal and secondary 
lights ; another quarter to be as dark as possible ; and 
the remaining half to be kept in mezzotint, or half 
shadow." 

It will be seen from this that chiaroscuro as 
Reynolds understood it had nothing to do with nature, 
but was an arbitrary scheme for the disposition of the 
masses of light and dark. Ever since artists began to 
design in three dimensions instead of two, i.e., when 
they began to pay special attention to aerial perspective 
and distance, a more or less arbitrary scheme of light 
and shade was found necessary for decorative purposes. 
Imagine an artist going out to sketch a landscape, 
where there was a sheet of water and some trees. He 
would find that the water was much the same value as 
the sky, and the trees would make a thin dark line, 
the total proportion of light to dark being about 
ten to one. Therefore if he wished his sketch to be 
a decoration he would have to say to himself which 
should be the lightest light and which the darkest 
dark, he would have to devise the most rational scheme 
of light and shade suited to the view before him, making 



16 WATER-COLOUR 

such a change in what he saw that his drawing might 
become decorative without ceasing to be natural. The 
modern contention is that laws concerning light and 
shade are rubbish ; that what the eye of the artist 
sees is what the artist ought to reproduce, no matter 
how much tradition is against him. The answer to 
this is that art is concerned with the inner eye (cf. 
Leonardo da Vinci) rather than with the physical eye. 
An artist's business is to paint rather what he feels than 
what he sees. Art that is only imitative is not art. 
If a landscape is painted simply and solely according to 
the vision of the physical eye (it would be nearer the 
mark in modern times to say the eye of the lens) the 
result is an illustrated interview of a particular spot 
something purely anecdotal. If, on the other hand, the 
laws of light and shade are skilfully applied the result 
becomes a work of art. Not only something that is a 
decoration apart from what it represents, not merely a 
particular view of a particular spot at a particular 
moment, but a picture which contains the god of 
landscape. As an instance, consider Turner's Somer 
Hill. If it only represented a house on the top of a hill 
with a pond in the foreground it would contain nothing 
of an emotional character, but the reason that it is so 
moving is that it embodies all that is dignified and 
sweet in an English summer evening. 

While contemplating this picture, which is at once 
so beautiful and so natural, so personal and yet so 
traditional, it would be a good moment to go into 
the much-discussed question of truth to nature. I 
maintain that there are two different kinds of truth 
to nature, and before deciding whether truth is a 



WATER-COLOUR 17 

virtue or a vice, it is necessary to separate these two 
different truths. One sort of truth, therefore, shall be 
described as scientific, actual, or journalistic ; the other 
sort as philosophic, religious, or ultimate. As an 
instance of scientific truth, any typical landscape by 
Monet would serve my purpose ; as an instance of 
actual truth, the frock-coats in the portraits of Monsieur 
Leon Bonnat ; as an instance of journalistic truth, the 
paintings of Meissonier. Now in these three instances 
the aim as regards truth is practically the same, i.e., an 
aim after actual truth, without philosophic truth. I 
might take many instances where the actual and 
philosophical truth coincide, but that would only 
confuse the issue. The instance which I am going to 
take to illustrate the other truth is the Prima Vera of 
Botticelli. This picture is known to every one (at any 
rate in reproduction) and it contains the philosophic, 
religous, and ultimate truth, without the actual truth. 
Suppose that the seasons as we now know them were to 
change, owing to some atmospheric upheaval, and a 
new generation came along which could never see or 
feel the spring and we wanted to explain to it all that 
spring had meant to us the former generation there 
would be no better way of doing this than by showing 
the Prima Vera of Botticelli. In that picture everything 
is actually untrue. The plants are arranged in a formal, 
unnatural way, the trees are placed in a quite artificial 
semicircle ; the draperies fall into a series of decorative 
lines and have no tangibility or substance. The shapes 
of the forms are hardly human ; yet nevertheless that 
picture contains the spring. All that we feel of new 
life, enthusiasm and romance, when winter has not been 



18 WATER-COLOUR 

long enough gone for us to be quite rid of the sense of 
fear, and yet the sparkle and exuberance of the flowers 
and the singing of the birds are gradually producing the 
spring intoxication, has been embodied and explained 
in the Prima Vera. 

As I have said before, the philosophic and the actual 
truth may coincide, but whether in landscape portrait or 
subject pictures, the philosophic or religious truth must 
be present, whereas the actual or scientific truth may or 
may not be present, but is not essential to the work of 
art. Hence the Prima Vera of Botticelli is in all 
essentials more modern, more advanced, more realistic 
in the proper sense, more important to modern painters 
than any spring landscape by Monet with effects of sun- 
light on green trees. # The movement for actual 
realism in art coincided almost exactly with scientific 
criticism of religious beliefs. Monet wanted to show 
that nature was not actually as Poussin and Claude 
painted it. Huxley, Darwin, and Lyell wanted to show 
that the first chapter of Genesis was not actually a true 
account of the creation of the world. Monet and 
Huxley f were essential to the development of thought. 
Before Monet, people did think that Claude's land- 
scapes were like actual nature. Before Huxley, people 
believed the first chapter of Genesis to be true in all 
its details. However, now is the time to realise 

* I don't wish it to be thought that no picture painted since the 
Prima Vera of Botticelli contains this vital truth. I have chosen this 
chiefly because it is universally known, and also because a vital truth 
never becomes obsolete. 

t In mentioning Monet and Huxley together I do not wish to give 
the impression that they are on the same level as men of science. 
Monet was only scientific in aim. 



WATER-COLOUR 19 

that, though it is necessary to perceive what actual truth 
is ; yet actual truth is worth nothing either in religion 
or art. It may be true that Christ was not the son of 
a virgin, yet the Christian religion was the apotheosis 
of purity, humility, reverence. And with a disappear- 
ance of belief in the Christian religion there is a corre- 
sponding disappearance of these qualities. This is a 
disaster to the human race, unless some other force 
should bring^about the apotheosis of stronger and nobler 
qualities. In like manner Claude and Poussin's trees 
may not be the trees of nature, yet they adopted a canon 
which expressed the inner meaning of landscape, and 
whether we adopt the same canons or not, we must 
have the same pursuit after philosophic truth. 

No. 8 is a late Turner. It is difficult to know what 
to say of such a drawing except that it shows complete 
decay. Unfortunately it is just this kind of drawing 
that the public have chosen to admire most. There 
seems to be a fate against any English artist, no matter 
how great he may be to start with, continuing to be an 
artist all his life. The British public always demand 
something that is not truly artistic. Late Turners are 
often described as " colour poems," "profoundly imagi- 
native," " miracles of seraphic vision." When such 
terms find their way into art criticism one may be sure 
that the poor artist has given way at last that he has 
stepped outside the legitimate form of his art, and that 
he is supplying the Adelphi-isms that have been so 
long clamoured for. Turner's late water-colours and 
pictures are the exact artistic equivalent of his verses. 
Yet the literary world is sensible enough not to pretend 
to see in them the foundation of a new school of poetry. 



20 WATER-COLOUR 

For the last ten years the " advanced " exhibitions have 
been flooded with the artistic offspring of senile Turner. 
There is no doubt that Turner was one of the great 
gods of landscape, and therefore everything that he did 
was interesting, even after his decline, but what a mis- 
fortune that his artistic descendants of to-day should 
not be the children of his prime. 

Nos. 9, 10, ii are by Girtin. Girtin died at the 
age of 29, therefore he never came to his full strength, 
far less declined. But what amazing achievement. 
What a splendidly robust artist ! What a perfect blend- 
ing of style and matter, of tradition and vitality. What 
a fine reverence for the limits of water-colour, and what 
a Titanic skill in profiting by its possibilities. He 
seems to have added something of Canaletto and Guardi 
on to his English tradition. Turner said of him, " If 
Tom Girtin had lived I should have starved " ; but 
Girtin would never have equalled the success of Turner, 
though he was a more perfect artist. 

The three greatest stylists of English water-colour 
are undoubtedly Turner, Girtin, and Cotman. Girtin 
is lucky in having left little behind him but what is 
first rate ; whereas there has been a rage for all Turner's 
worst works. Cotman also lived to decline, but at his 
best he was perfect. (Turner's opinion of him may be 
gauged by the fact of his signing with his name one 
of Cotman's drawings.) 

There are two reproductions here (Nos. 12, 13) from 
Cotman's drawings. The peculiarity about Cotman is 
that his drawings are more coloured than any other first- 
rate drawings. Water-colour is essentially and above 
all things a light and shade medium, yet the addition 






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of slight colour and the judicious opposition of warm 
and cold colours add enormously to the beauty of a 
light and shade drawing. After Cotman, water-colours 
were turned out in great quantities to supply the large 
demand there was for pictures that looked like oil- 
pictures and yet were not so expensive. The trans- 
parency of the washes was lost in ridiculous over- 
finish. Strong colours were used and they abandoned 
the old wash-line mounts (than which nothing is more 
decorative) for gold mounts, in order that they might 
imitate as nearly as possible oil-pictures. In Cotman, 
colour is pushed to its very furthest limit without 
producing a deterioration in quality. His Greta Bridge 
(British Museum) is the best example of a perfect, yet 
highly coloured drawing. 

No. 14 is by David Cox and No. 15 by William 
Hunt. I have not had these drawings reproduced 
here either because I admire them or simply for the 
pleasure of making fun of them ; they are here because 
they represent the sources of two currents that have 
been flowing right down to the present period. They 
represent, both in very different ways, the tendency to a 
somewhat bigoted adherence to realism. This tendency 
to realism had two distinct phases. I will first take the 
phase that is represented by the David Cox drawing. 
The true originator of the phase was Constable.* He 
reacted strongly against the descendants of the Rey- 
nolds' school, who waged a sort of effete classicism. 

* As an improvisor Constable was second to none. His rapid 
sketches in oils are marvellous. Unfortunately his important studio 
works lose nearly all the vitality that he was so successful in realising 
while sketching from nature. 

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22 WATER-COLOUR 

Benjamin Robert Hayden is typical of the kind of Art 
that I am referring to. Constable kicked against the 
inevitable brown tree, the melodramatic light and 
shade, and the excessive use of bitumen of which his 
predecessors were so fond. Constable's painting had 
an enormous success in France, and there his imitators 
took an even stronger dislike to canons and conventions 
than he did himself. They mostly worked out of doors 
and without decorative aim, and they were the founders 
of the impressionist nature school of to-day. 

The other phase of the nature school is represented 
by the Hunt drawing, and the person really responsible 
for this kind of drawing and its derivations is Ruskin. 
Ruskin hated the presumption of the Constable school 
in thinking they could imitate nature in half an hour 
or an hour. He said, " The world has taken centuries 
to create itself how can you presume to imitate it in 
half an hour ? " However, he did not think it pre- 
sumption to imitate it in twenty hours or fifty hours, 
and as a fifty hours' job, this drawing of Hunt is a very 
good example. 

Turner, who was Ruskin's great hero, began his 
career as a pupil of Sir Joshua Reynolds, and he was 
well impregnated with the canons, conventions, and 
rules which were in vogue at that time. Later in life 
he deviated from these canons in a direction which he 
thought and which Ruskin thought was naturalistic. 

Ruskin's idea of the proper education for a beginner 
was to go to nature, and faithfully, humbly copy all 
that he saw. In order to appreciate the disaster that 
such a method brings, let some one who does not know 
how to draw and yet has a critical faculty try it. Alas, 




No. 14 



PRIMROSES AND BIRDS* NESTS 
William Hunt 




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WATER-COLOUR 23 

many have tried it without having the critical faculty. 
I don't know whether it would be quite fair to impute 
to Ruskin the garden group of water-colours or the 
Oriental group, # but at any rate these fiendish achieve- 
ments are the outcome of the idea of faithfully copying 
nature. 

I have kept to the last this magnificent drawing 
by Claude (No. 16), as I should like the flavour 
of this work of art to remain with my listeners. 
Claude Lorraine is not in high favour at the present 
moment. He was very unfairly treated by Ruskin, 
and he is anathema to the impressionists. Yet if this 
drawing be compared to the best pictures that Claude 
Monet ever painted, only those who are devoid of all 
sense of proportion could fail to realise the immense 
superiority of the one over the other, alike in aim, con- 
ception, and execution. As a water-colourist he is in a 
class by himself. No one else has ever been quite so 

* Garden water-colours. I refer to those water-colours which aim 
at representing bright highly coloured herbaceous borders relieved 
against a yew hedge, the brilliance of the flowers being ineffectively 
and clumsily imitated in a medium which is not nearly substantial 
enough for the purpose. Friends and relatives of mine have often 
said to me, " I love colour I love flowers. Why am I not to try and 
paint them as I see them ? " The answer to this is, " If you love 
flowers, try to understand their decorative use in Art as well as in 
Nature, as did Fra Angelico. Try to comprehend the immensity of 
his technique which enabled him to produce colours which rivalled 
the very colours of the flowers themselves." 

Oriental water-colours. I refer here to those water-colours that have 
for their subject Egyptian girls with pitchers on their heads silhouetted 
against a sunset sky reflected in water with the pyramids in the back- 
ground. I must apologise for mentioning these last in a work that 
deals with art, but they are still so terribly popular and prevalent. 



2i WATER-COLOUR 

free or accomplished, so reckless, or so passionate. His 
touch is exquisite. Difficulties don't seem to exist for 
him. He uses a brush and wash as easily as most 
people speak. In his oil-pictures he never reached quite 
the same level. His huge landscapes in oils are too far 
removed from improvisation. In them there are beautiful 
bits and wonderful atmosphere, but they do not contain 
enough of the original impulse. However, as this lecture 
deals with water-colour, it is fitting that I should hail 
him as the greatest of them all. 

This is all I have to say here about water-colours of 
the past. There still remains the present and the future. 
What are we to do as modern painters ? Are we to 
assume that we shall do right because we are modern, 
and because we live in an age when progress is believed 
in as a matter of course, or are we to acquire a perfect 
knowledge of the methods of the past and absorb all 
that has gone before us ? 

The Mecca of modern painters is Paris. They fly to 
it as the moth flies to the candle. They court deliberate 
death. Paris has destroyed the whole of European art. 
The Parisians themselves, who are quite without the 
quality of modesty, have a rooted belief that the present 
era of art in Paris is something so stupendously mag- 
nificent that beside it the Periclean Age does not exist 
at all. The best French art has always been classic. 
The modern Parisians are anything but classic. They 
detest tradition, they crave for what is new and sensa- 
tional. They argue in the following manner: "You 
cannot go back. You must be modern. What is dead 
is dead," &c. In answer to this I should like to quote 
a saying of William Morris : " Something never came 



WATER-COLOUR 25 

out of nothing." It is true that "What is dead is dead," 
but what is living is always the issue of something that 
is either dead or dying. The usual sense of the word 
" modern " is ten years before the present and ten years 
after. I think " modern " should mean 500 years before 
and 500 years after. A new artistic fact takes just 
about 1000 years to manifest itself. The "spirit of 
modernity " is a common phrase just now in art criticism. 
This being interpreted means that when a modern picture 
contains all the faults that the great masters of the past 
so carefully avoided it is said to have the modern spirit. 
The value of the history of Art is that it has set up a 
standard, and if modern pictures do not come up to this 
standard (it does not matter how much the spirit of 
modernity may be present) they do not exist. Taking 
Constable as one of the prophets of the modern spirit, 
his disciples of to-day are so many subter-Constables, 
instead of super-Constables. Their preoccupation with 
the modern spirit has the result of making them do 
badly to-day what has previously been done well. 
Hence the words modern and bad are often inter- 
changed. It must, however, be realised that works of 
art are never good because they are old, or bad because 
they are modern, or vice versa. Things are good 
because they are good, or bad because they are bad. 
The reason that there is such a vast quantity of bad art 
produced now is because there are so many more pro- 
ducers than ever before. Ever since the institution of 
compulsory education the intellectual trades have been 
flooded with the badly and semi-educated, and painting 
has suffered along with all other arts. The harm done 
to the Arts (indeed, to the whole of life) by compulsory 



26 WATER-COLOUR 

education is incalculable. Will humanity ever recover 
from it ? That is the question. 

The past history of Art provides endless instances 
of goings back and renaissances. The Egyptians again 
and again reverted to their most flourishing epochs, 
and always with the greatest success. Their most 
decadent periods came when their desire for realism 
surpassed their feeling for design. # The history of 
Chinese Art is similar to that of the Egyptians, as they 
continually reverted to their zenith period, as did also 
the Japanese, drawing fresh life and vigour from the 
original source. 

In more modern times the Italian renaissance was a 
renaissance of the Greek classical period. And what 
was the result? Was it a feeble imitation of Greek 
Art? Not at all. It was something absolutely new 
and vital. Later still in the last century, when a num- 
ber of English painters came to the conclusion that Art 
had gone astray since the days of Raphael, were their 
pictures mere pastiches of the primitives emphatically 
no. At times they were almost excruciatingly Vic- 
torian. Thus it appears that these renaissances are an 
inevitable law of Art history. How far imitations of 
particular painters of the past are legitimate is a matter 
that each painter must decide for himself, and time will 
give him reason or otherwise. Poussin did his best to 
imitate Titian, and yet his Art is both national and 
individual. The sources of Watts' inspiration were 

* A friend of mine holds the opinion that decadence in painting 
dates from the time when the picture became more highly considered 
than the frame ; that both are evidences of expressive design and both 
equally important. 



WATER-COLOUR 27 

the Elgin marbles and the Venetians, and yet he was 
intensely English. It is safe to say, however, that 
knowledge derived from methods and traditions of 
the past must be swallowed and digested before it can 
form part of a new life. Montaigne says that the bees 
ransack the flowers, and yet what they produce is 
neither " sweet-william nor thyme," but honey ; and so 
a modern painter, when he ransacks nature, must not 
produce the actual flowers of nature, but he must 
produce Art, which is the honey of nature. 

In England at the present day, there are signs of a 
renaissance in architecture, furnishing, and most of the 
so-called minor arts and crafts. Also the trade for 
modern pictures is bad, which is a state of things most 
likely to bring about a revival of good painting.* At 
the beginning of the nineteenth century it was thought 
that if only the State and society encouraged painters 
sufficiently, Art would thrive in a manner hitherto 
unknown. That has not been at all the result. The 
number of artists has multiplied ; the Art has gone 
back. In France there is such a tremendous output of 
painted works that it is difficult to conceive a drain 
sufficiently large to carry away such a vast encumbrance 
to human life. 

It will be seen from what I have said that I am full 
of bias and prejudice, but that is surely what a painter 
should be. My opinions are the result of instinct, and 
afterwards I try and find good reasons to support them. 
I do not wish to be understood to mean that Art is 
entirely and solely a matter of laws and principles but 

As artists are unlikely to sell their pictures when they are finished, 
they might just as well paint good ones as bad. 



28 WATER-COLOUR 

I wish to emphasise the fact that imagination, genius, 
inspiration, poetry, are things which may or may not 
lurk within the individual, but they are in no way 
hampered by a good education in the laws of painting. 
At present we have no education. If a man is a genius 
he will be none the worse off for having the means of 
expression at his finger-ends. If a man is simply a 
hack, he may just as well be a competent hack. 

The history of Art movements is a sequence of 
revolutions. The last revolution was a reaction against 
the academic, and towards the anarchic. My reaction 
is not only towards law and order, but towards such a 
pitch of law and order as can only be attained by 
keeping clear of all reigning academic bodies as well 
as from the anarchists. The anarchists were necessary 
to the development of Art, as they demonstrated that 
law and order without the vital spark were nothing 
worth. Also they have demonstrated that though a 
whole generation may loudly affirm that bad pictures 
are good, the fundamental common sense of human 
nature will assert itself in the end. The age of paradox 
has come to an end. 



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